No matter the team, no matter the league, the offensive line is immensely important. NFL, FBS, FCS, Division 3, jayvee high school ball, whatever. In order to protect your QB, you need a passable offensive line. Want a running game? You better have a good O-Line. For evidence, look back through the immense history of football; or, for a recent-and-local example, simply look at the Kansas City Chiefs, version 2007. A Top 10 RB in the NFL, a Top 2 TE, a Top 20 WR and a host of other, capable skill position players all were on the team last year. A single average offensive lineman (except Brian Waters) was not. And thus, one of the worst offensive seasons in NFL history, and the worst in Chiefs history.
Last season, Kansas rode a tremendous offensive line, highlighted by two offensive tackles, to a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl. You know that. You also know that both of those offensive tackles, one of them a First Team All-American and NFL Draft choice and the other a three-year starter, have since departed. Add the two together and you get the biggest hole on the team; replacing two of the best offensive linemen in school history in one offseason. Some positive reports out of fall practice sessions seemed to indicate that the problem seemed to be solved, at least at left tackle with Jeff Spikes. Right tackle was still up-in-the-air, although Jeremiah Hatch had quite a fall himself.
However, all of this blew up when Jeremiah Hatch couldn't play against FIU. And then, the supposed strength of not only the O-Line but of the entire offense, the interior threesome of Adrian Mayes, Ryan Cantrell and Chet Hartley, didn't perform up to expectations. This is how you struggle in the running game against, statistically, one of the worst defenses in college football last season. If we are to have a chance against some of the better teams on our schedule, and maybe even some middle-of-the-road type of teams such as Louisiana Tech, we have to have improved offensive line play.
My solutions for how we can get this done after the jump...
Fix #1) Get Jeremiah Hatch Healthy and Keep Him There
This isn't anything the coaching staff can get done or anything, but it would be really nice to get Hatch back in the lineup. The good news is that he appears to be well on his way to playing this Saturday, so hopefully he can get back in there quickly and stay there. You have to root for filler-types such as fifth-year senior Matt Darton, who received the start at RT in Hatch's place, but he cleraly isn't up to snuff as far as starting for a BCS-conference school. At least one that has a shot at a bowl game. Hatch is a complete uknown at RT, having never played some actual snaps in a game at the position, but no way he will be worse than Darton. Not that Darton was horrible, just that Hatch was picked by Mangino for a reason and he has an incredible amount of athletic ability and talent.
Fix #2) Replace Adrian Mayes at LG
Speaking of filler-types, you have to love Adrian Mayes' story. Going from a completely unrecruited walk-on to a starting LG for a BCS-winning team is a pretty good story. Still, the best players should play. And while that is Mangino's philosphy, and I don't doubt that he isn't going through with it in this case, it just feels like other players are more talented. Hatch, a natural guard, would certainly be a better fit at LG than Mayes, but he is occupied over at RT at the time being. Some reports had Lueken coming in, and he could certainly be a possibility. Even if the two are comparable as we sit here, I would much prefer to play Lueken, as he has a much greater chance of improving as the season goes along, as his athleticism dwarfs Mayes', plus it would begin the rebuilding of the interior of the line, which is currently loaded with three senior starters. If Mayes really is the best LG we have, then we are in trouble. Hopefully someone can step up, likely Lueken, and we can improve LG mid-season.
Fix #3) Experience, Experience, Experience
Again, this isn't really a fix. But, in order for Spikes to handle George Selive of South Florida or Auston English of Oklahoma, he is going to have to see a lot of snaps. A lot and a lot of in-game snaps. While the interior line was a large part of the problem, they are three seniors and experience isn't much of an issue. The two offensive tackles, on the other hand, are two brand new starters this year, both in their first year of actual putting on shoulder pads on Saturdays, as opposed to simply a jersey and sweats. Both Spikes and Hatch are redshirt freshmen and both, especially Hatch who missed the opener, need plenty of snaps this week to prepare for the upcoming season. Playing a game is going to be difficult enough as it is even while assuming some competent offensive line play; if Selvie is chasing Reesing's backside each-and-every play, we don't have a chance. Like, at all.
Fix #4) Keep the Tight End to Block
I hate doing this kind of stuff. Especially in the spread offense and especially in college football, you need as many potential pass-catching options on any given play as possible. That is why the tackles were so awesome for us last year; Fine rarely, if ever, was forced to stay in and help protect Reesing, which enabled him to squirt out for five-yard routes as a safety option which was life-saving at times. Plus, while Dedeaux has shown to be a pretty good blocker, who knows if he is as good as Fine. And if we are having to keep our TE in to block, A.J. Steward isn't going to see much playing time at all as his blocking, being a former QB and all, isn't nearly up-to-snuff.
However, especially against elite pass-rushers, we are going to have to leave Dedeaux in to block, or at least spend the first second-or-so to chip him coming off the line. I love Spikes, and as I said in the O-Tackle Position Preview I think he has "Anthony Collins" written all over him, but he just doesn't seem to be quite ready enough to withstand the constant beatdown of elite pass-rusher after elite pass-rusher. Most freshmen, even those of the redshirt variety, aren't.
Those are my four fixes for the offensive line. Not that they are all "fixes", and not that the coaching staff isn't already doing some of them, and not that they aren't obvious or anything, but those are the ways I think we can help forget about AC and Cesar on the outside. Sure, we won't have many Flutie-esque plays by Hot Toddy this year where he watches a SportsCenter marthon while scanning the D before having to evade some tacklers and tossing the pigskin downfield, but he should still have enough time to pick apart the D. At least I hope he can.
LaTech previews start Thursday...